Over the last two years, electronic music has become bigger across the United States than at any point in history, even at the height of the rave era in the 1990s. For lifelong fans, its sudden rise has been astonishing. For years, while house and techno were born essentially in the Midwest of America, those of us stranded stateside have looked on as electronic became a staple of European pop culture, while we were left seeking out underground clubs and boutique record stores, feeling niche-ier than ever. But now, dance music is so mainstream that the corporate powers that be have rebranded it—electronic dance music, or EDM, which self-respecting dance music fans tend to despise.
As “EDM” spreads, it seems that it could even supplant hip-hop as the country’s dominant youth culture. The evidence is in the music: producer/DJs like Skrillex and Deadmau5 pull millions of dollars in fees, and have become godheads for young fans obsessed with the deep wobble of dubstep. Meanwhile, classic R&B and rap stars like Usher, Rihanna and Nicki Minaj currently rule the Billboard top 10 with singles that sound suspiciously like techno and house.
Where the zeitgeist has changed, so has the money. Gone are the underground warehouse raves of two decades ago (unless you know where to look!). The leading promoters of dance music events are the selfsame huge corporate entities that push the term EDM—and are, some dance fans say, robbing the music of its soul for their own end. (As corporations do.)
This year, the Electric Daisy Carnival, a festival held in Las Vegas, attracted an unprecedented 140,000 people a day. (The slowest day: 90,000.) But the main purveyor of corporate EDM is someone you may have heard of: Live Nation Entertainment, the gianormous entity that was borne of a much-disputed merger between Live Nation promotions (FKA Clear Channel Entertainment) and Ticketmaster, forming what some still see as a monopoly.
This week, Live Nation purchased Hard Events, one of the bigger quasi-underground promotions companies, which throws parties across the country and also puts on a yearly rave cruise called Holy Ship! that’s been a hot ticket among dance fans despite its full-vacation cost. The New York Times:
Big money is flowing into electronic dance music. In the latest example of corporate interest in this once-ignored market, Live Nation Entertainment said on Tuesday that it had acquired Hard Events, a Los Angeles company that has put on popular festivals and concerts across North America.
Yet such investments are fueling fears that a bubble is taking hold in the world of electronic dance music, or E.D.M., jeopardizing the creative and commercial health of the music. The issue has been intensely debated inside the music business, and recently some of the genre’s stars have sounded alarms as well.
Meanwhile, from early June, a piece titled “A Concert Mogul is Betting on Electronic Dance Music” detailed how Live Nation’s former mastermind, Robert F.X. Sillerman, is planning to float a whopping $1 billion into the market, investing in already established, smaller concert promoters across the country and letting them bring in the money.
As with every genre before it, corporate influence in a previously untouched genre is cause for handwringing, not least because the dilution of the music seems inevitable the bigger it gets. Live Nation’s acquisition of Hard was especially upsetting, because of Hard’s reputation for supporting underground as well as marquee artists and respecting the purity of the experience. For instance, the upcoming line-up for Hard Summer 2012, in Los Angeles, places big names like Skrillex, Nero and Boyz Noise alongside more boutique artists like Araabmuzik, Buraka Som Sistema and Brenmar. With the influence of Live Nation, one wonders if this sort of juxtaposition will continue to flourish or if ticket prices will become even less affordable?
Deadmau5, for one, seemed verklempt. From the New York Times article:
“E.D.M. has turned into a massively marketed cruise ship, and it’s sinking fast,” the D.J. and producer Deadmau5 wrote on his Tumblr page on Tuesday. “All I’m trying to do is put on my life jacket and swim as far away from this shipwreck as fast as I can.”
Some dance fans might find Deadmau5’s freakout pretty rich—he’s on the cover of Rolling Stone right now, and many believe his large-scale, somewhat ham-fisted take on the already ham-fisted genre of dubstep is part of the problem. On the other hand, if a man who has benefited from the creation of EDM (TM!) is feeling this kind of distress, one wonders if all of us should be worried.
Dance music, like hip-hop before it, is accompanied by a very specific and largely organic culture. Sometimes fueled, notoriously, by body-high drugs like ecstasy and MDMA, it’s got an even subtler code to it that goes beyond the broad strokes of party drugs, and spans fashion to slang to micro-genres. (Dance music all over the world is constantly splitting into micro-genres.) If a niche culture suddenly explodes into a massive moneymaker—one Wall Street is increasingly dabbling with—what happens to that culture?
Respected and (relatively) inveterate electronic music critic Philip Sherburne has been pondering these things from the vantage of someone who’s been involved for decades. (One of his claims to fame: he coined the term “microhouse” in 2001, describing a then-popular, mostly German take on house music that seemed to model itself on ping-pong balls echoing across Styrofoam.) In a recent piece for Spin, Sherburne predicts:
As Spinal Tap's lovably cutthroat Bobbi Flekman once explained, "Money talks, and bullshit walks." But if the big money's not careful, it could witness an exodus of the dance-music faithful from the playground being constructed for them with all the haste of a Nevada high-rise. Not that the major labels and mega-agencies don't have a place in the equation, but electronic dance music always has been, fundamentally, a culture of independent labels and intractable fans, and that's not likely to change any time soon. We may be headed for a split in the scene, as the big investors create a gated community designed to their own specifications, and the strong-willed masses make their own rave in the vacant lot adjacent.
It’s an optimistic take, and he goes on to point out that corporate rock didn’t wipe out the underground. (I would counter that hip-hop, with its knotty combination of race and marketing, didn’t exactly escape its corporatization unscathed.) The problem with a potential corporate split between mainstream EDM and other types of non-corpo dance music is that in some cases, the music and the fans can stop speaking to each other, and you end up with a viciously divided scene like the underground vs. mainstream rap arguments of the late 1990s. (Which were incredibly tiring and are finally just starting to heal.) Others tend to agree; an item at Global Dance Music called “Electronic Dance Music Continues to Go Corporate”:
Until a genre garners mainstream attention and popularity, independent promoters are entirely dedicated to keeping a particular scene running. Interest from large corporate heads provides added financial stability and cushion to independent promoters with varying degrees of involvement, the absolute brand evangelists, but with little to no experience. Let's call promoters the pioneers of the game; does a corporation fit?
The financial details of the deal between Live Nation and Hard Events were not disclosed to the public, and while the EDM community continues to worry about corporate involvement in a once-underground genre, our option resides in watching a developing fickle genre unfold.
Unfolding, indeed. For now, the Hard Festival lineup remains true to its past and its fanbase; meanwhile, niche-ier, independent dance parties continue to rule the underground, from LA to Detroit, Chicago to Miami, New York to London, Distrito Federal to Buenos Aires, Soweto to Goa, as surely as if it were 1992. But in the meantime, dance music fans should keep watch.
As the Future of Music Coalition points out, there’s a chasm of difference between what we consider a “better dance music experience,” and what a white-collar corporate mogul considers a better dance music experience. Especially when his favorite musician is Bob Dylan.